Graham Greene was one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th century, whose best novels feature morally complex characters who experience grace through their very real struggles with fallen human desire. I recently read his 1951 novel, The End of the Affair, which takes place in London in the mid-1940s. A writer named Maurice enters into an affair with Sarah, a woman married to a milquetoast civil servant named Henry. Maurice is an avowed atheist, and Sarah is essentially irreligious. But when a bomb explodes in Maurice’s apartment building during an air raid, and Sarah fears that he has been killed, she finds herself praying to God and making a deal with Him that, if He allowed Maurice to live, she would end the affair, despite her intense love for him. Just then, Maurice emerges from the rubble, uninjured. Providing no explanation to Maurice, Sarah breaks off the relationship. Filled with resentment and jealous curiosity, Maurice hires a private investigator, who purloins Sarah’s diary, from which Maurice learns what motivated Sarah’s decision. Toward the end of the novel, Maurice reads a letter addressed to him from Sarah, whose initial bargain with God has blossomed into genuine faith. Sarah continues to love Maurice, and it causes her intense heartache to live without him, but she also wants to become Catholic. In the letter, she describes a visit she made to a priest to inquire about entering the Church. She tells the priest about her affair with Maurice as well as the promise she made to God. She describes her marriage to Henry as loveless, hardly a marriage at all. “I asked him couldn’t I become a Catholic and marry you?” Then, she writes: “Every time I asked him a question I had such hope; it was like opening the shutters of a new house and looking for the view, and every window just faced a blank wall. No, no, no, he said, I couldn’t marry you, I couldn’t go on seeing you, not if I was going to be a Catholic.” Furious with this response, Sarah storms out of the priest’s office, decrying him and all priests as obstacles to God. “They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he’s got mercy, only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment.”
It’s a powerful passage about conscience and truth written by a man whose own life was morally complicated. In a way, it helps us to understand that what we call “sin” is not just a label that bishops and priest slap randomly on things that people want to do as a way of interfering with the fulfillment of desire. In essence, sin is a misguided pursuit of happiness that ultimately leads to unhappiness and unfulfillment because it always denies something true. Our Lord suffers on the cross because of our sins, accepting what looks like punishment to offer us mercy. To accept that mercy, Sarah must accept the pain of detachment from a love that was corrupted by infidelity, betrayal, and deceit. It might seem like a punishment, but it is done for the sake of the love that is eternally true, faithful, and merciful. Sarah’s suffering for the sake of living in truth thus becomes redemptive. It comes with a different kind of happiness – a temporarily sad happiness that resembles the sad happiness of the suffering Christ. This is an unintelligible paradox to those who only know to pursue happiness by “following their hearts.” It is a paradox only understood in light of the words of Christ in the Beatitudes.